Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Year of Cucurbits!!

No, we haven't forgotten. :)

I admit that back in January when we were starting Grow It Eat It's Year of Cucurbits, I felt some trepidation. There are lots of things that can go wrong with squash, cucumbers, melons and their relatives, and we've had nearly all of them happen in the demo garden: our melons failed to thrive, our cucumbers were devastated by bacterial wilt, and the squash that made it past vine borers and squash bugs often succumbed to powdery mildew.

However, whether it's thanks to our polar vortex winter or some other factor, this has been a remarkably pest-free year for us. Squash vine borer moths are chancy to spot, so it's not unusual that we haven't seen any, but we've also had no damage caused by their larvae. Since every other deterrence or destruction method has failed for us, I was all ready to inject Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) into the stems of affected squash, or even prophylactically, but I haven't had to. I'm still crossing my fingers - normally I'd say we were home free where borers are concerned, but so many pests have made delayed appearances this year that one never knows.

We have seen a few squash bugs (and their egg clusters) but at about a hundredth of the levels we usually see. Cucumber beetles are fairly plentiful, but they've done no damage thus far; they are usually the culprits where the sudden death of bacterial wilt is concerned. And, in the demo garden at least, we're avoiding other cucurbit diseases. (I've lost a couple of squash to mosaic virus, which is endemic at our community garden, and seen powdery mildew there as well.)

Which means we are harvesting! Buckets full of cucumbers, arms full of squash.

by Darlene Nicholson
Yesterday's harvest completely destroyed the previous record: we delivered 212 pounds of produce to Manna Food Center. In one day! This is only part of it:

And yes, there were some gigantic squash in there (it's what happens when you're not in the garden every day), which helps a lot with weight totals. These are the tromboncino squash we harvested (pruners to the right, for scale):

Monster zucchini, as well. A couple of five-gallon buckets of cukes. (And lots of other things too: beets, carrots, potatoes, and some less heavy items.)

Our other cucurbits are coming along well: various melons, mao gwa (edible fuzzy gourds), tiny mouse melons, a watermelon that's bred for containers and is producing in one, and more. Earlier in the season we discovered in one bed what we were calling a mystery volunteer squash until it started displaying white flowers and we realized it was a gourd; it's climbed all over that bed and the fence behind it, and is growing masses of these:

by Darlene Nicholson
The children's garden grew lots of gourds last year, and likely some of the seeds ended up in the compost, since the same plant popped up elsewhere as well (and has been removed; one is enough!). This year's children's garden team has erected an enormous tunnel of bamboo:

which is being covered with gourds and many other plants. It'll be very impressive by the end of the summer.

We hope our luck holds! I'd love to hear how everyone else's cucurbits are doing this year; please leave a comment if you have stories to tell. And I leave you with a squash flower that looks like a duck:

You're welcome. :)

Monday, July 28, 2014

Define your terms! Hybrid, heirloom, GMO, etc.

Every once in a while, we garden educators will break out into a rash of definitions, especially after hearing people toss words around without entirely understanding them. I'm getting the itch right now, so here's my effort to define some commonly used gardening terms.

  • Hybrid. In basic terms, hybridization is the crossing of two different species or varieties of plant, which can occur naturally; but when you see "hybrid" or "F1" in a catalog, it means that the seed has been produced by human intervention, by bringing the pollen from one plant to another in a controlled fashion to purposefully create or emphasize certain characteristics, such as disease resistance, flavor, size, or early harvest. Hybrid seed can be a good choice if these characteristics matter to you - for example, if you have a regular problem with cucumber mosaic virus, you'll want to choose plants that have been bred to be resistant. It usually costs more than open-pollinated seed, and you'll have to buy it again every year (or when your packet is empty). F1 hybrid plants do not produce stabilized seed; if you save seed from them and plant it, the resulting plants will likely have a different mix of characteristics from the F1's parent plants. I've done this inadvertently, especially with hybrid cherry tomatoes such as Sun Gold - the fruit falls before it can be picked, and next year you get some volunteer seedlings that might be orange cherries that don't taste quite as good, or tiny little red fruits on a ridiculously vigorous vine, or something else entirely.
  • Open-Pollinated. Open pollination means that pollen is transferred by means of natural mechanisms, such as wind or insects. Some plants self-pollinate, meaning that the pollen moves only from one flower to another (or within one flower) on the same plant, and some cross-pollinate, meaning that pollen will easily move from one plant to another of the same species. There are many subcategories and a lot of wiggle room within this, but let's not get too complicated. Just know that if you're growing beans, peas, tomatoes, lettuce, and a few other species, self-pollination is the most likely thing to happen, and with many other vegetable species, cross-pollination can occur, which means that if you want to breed true-to-type seed, you need to keep different varieties of the same species isolated. If you manage this, and plant the resulting seed, you'll get plants very similar to the parent, because open-pollinated seed is stabilized. They will not, however, be genetically identical to the parent, because this doesn't happen in natural reproduction. Open-pollinated seed usually maintains a fair amount of genetic diversity.
  • Heirloom. All heirloom plants are open-pollinated, but not all open-pollinated plants are heirlooms. There are different definitions for "heirloom," some of which rely on how old the variety is (say, more than 50 years), and some of which talk about the seed having been passed down in a family or community.
Therefore, by our usual definitions, hybrid and open-pollinated are the two major categories of seed and plants, with heirlooms being a subcategory of open-pollinated. It's possible for hybrid varieties to be bred until they achieve stabilization and are considered to be open-pollinated. Some people consider older commercial open-pollinated varieties to be heirlooms, so you could have a hybrid variety become an heirloom, given time and a lot of breeding work. It's important to understand that nearly all garden varieties of plants result from some human intervention along the way, whether it's in a commercial facility, a farmer's field, or Grandma's back yard. We tend to want certain characteristics in our vegetables and flowers, and to select for them; this is artificial rather than natural selection (to our benefit, not the plant's), but it's still a long-term process involving the plant's natural method of reproduction.
  • GMO. A genetically modified organism, on the other hand, is created by implanting genes from one species (plant or animal) into another species whose DNA would not normally contain them: lab work, not field breeding, done for a specific purpose that in theory improves the resulting species. GMO seed can be hybrid or open-pollinated. This process is still controversial, but has made a lot of plants easier to grow. We can support or condemn the method as consumers or as farmers, but as home gardeners it's pretty much irrelevant to us: if you wanted GMO seed for your own garden, you'd find it hard to get hold of. It's just not sold in the catalogs we use. (Note: this is not the same as saying that no home garden seed purchases will benefit companies that do sell GMO seed. This is a separate issue that you can address as a consumer.)
I hear a lot of confusion out there between hybrids and GMO plants, and between non-organic methods and GMO growing. Just because you use hybrid or non-organic seed, or use chemical fertilizers or pesticides on your garden, you are not "a GMO person." We have a lot of choices in gardening, as we do when we shop for food, and make them for personal reasons. Some of us may not want to buy food made from GMO products because we're uncertain of their effects; some of us may want to grow heirloom plants because we love history or think the flavor is superior; some of us may feel we need to discourage severe outbreaks of insects with pesticides (after educating ourselves about their use, and trying less aggressive solutions); some of us want the relative security of a hybrid variety that is known to resist a common disease or produce reliably before the end of the season. I'm not going to discourage anyone's choices, but I do think it's important to make the choices based on good information and understanding of what the words we use actually mean.

Thursday, July 24, 2014


In conjunction with this Saturday's Grow It Eat It Garden Event and the tomato tasting, here's something you can do with some of the tomatoes once they're harvested.

Brought in from the rather slow garden some Siberian tomatoes yesterday. I originally tried the variety thinking they'd be perfect for a friend who grows for her family's wine bar/cafe in the Adirondacks, which has a MUCH shorter growing season than we do. I figured if they'll produce in Siberia, they'll produce in North Creek. They didn't do all that well up there sadly. But here on the upper Eastern Shore they are some of the earliest to ripen. Golf-ball sized and not as juicy as slicers, they roast beautifully.

Marinated roasted Siberian tomatoes ready to go on bread
 Slice them in half, scoop out the bulk of juice and seeds with one swipe of your thumb, then spread them in a single layer cut-side up on a rimmed cookie sheet to catch any juice. Chop garlic ( I use the fresh roja garlic I've recently pulled from the garden), a dash of kosher salt, grind of pepper, and a drizzle of olive oil. Roast in a 325F oven for about 45 minutes to an hour, or until they are starting to shrivel and release their juices but are not dry. You can tell it's time when the garlic starts to smell really fragrant and just begins to brown. When cool, layer them in a container and sprinkle each later with white wine vinegar and a little more olive oil. Cover and refrigerate. They keep for at least a week. These make a great snack on crackers, or lunch on a slice of toasted baguette, whole grain bread spread with a little goat cheese and topped with a basil leaf or two.

Things to do at this Saturday's GIEI event in Montgomery County

1. Show off your tomatoes, if you got 'em. Please, we really need your tomatoes. We'll have a tomato tasting, and you can also bring seeds and recipes to share, as well as learning about several ways to cook tomatoes, how to save seeds from them, and what diseases and pests they might be suffering from. But I'm sure your tomatoes are perfect.

2. Help us figure out why our demo garden tomatoes are less than perfect this year. But everything else is splendid - and it's the Year of Cucurbits and our cucurbits are doing just fine, thank you! Helps to have practically no pests, thanks to our frigid winter.

3. But if there are any squash bugs (or their eggs or nymphs) lurking on our squashes, you can attend a talk that will help you recognize them and learn what to do about them. Along with dozens of other pests and diseases.

4. If you're an early bird, you can also hear me talk about how to keep animals out of your garden (event starts at 8:30, talk is at 9). I hear the weather's going to be great, though, so maybe you should spend the whole time out in the garden. So much going on inside, though! You'll want to be two places at once all morning.

5. Luckily, the informative talk and demonstration about building low tunnels for fall and winter gardening is outside at 10:15. And next to it, you can learn how to build garden structures with bamboo, including a nice trellis for your fall peas. And we have folks who are eager to tell you how and when to grow all your fall veggies. It may still be summer, but it's time to think fall!

6. Watch us dig early potatoes! We may also pick a few mouse melons.

7. Visit our straw bales burgeoning with plants, and speculate about why they are winning this year's informal competition with the container veggies.

8. And if you're a small-space gardener, learn how much our 100-square-foot garden team is getting out of their tiny plot!

9. Make sure to check out our children's garden, with the growing Tunnel of Gourds, the popcorn plant (it doesn't grow popcorn, it smells like it!), the adorable fairy garden in a pot, the plants with animal names, and the Turtle of Succulents!

10. Also check out our composting operation, our fruit and herbs and butterfly garden and ponds; visit the plant clinic and the tool care table and the pollinator information table; pick up a free recycling bin. In other words, learn things and have fun!

More information and directions at this link - scroll  down to July 26. Hope to see you there!

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A Colorado Intrepretation on Raised Bed Construction

Having recently returned from Colorado, I thought I would share a unique method of rapidly assembling a raised bed.  While this method probably works well in Rifle, Colorado where rainfall during the summer is minimal, It would not work in Maryland due to soil moisture causing wood rot.

The method used is to embed pallets in the ground, wire them together and line the vertical walls with plastic to conserve soil moisture.  They back filled the raised bed with manufactured soil (composted lama manure and soil) and planted the beds.  The pipes in the corners are used to water the garden.  Interesting design.

Another interesting design feature in the same garden was their so called "Keyhole" garden.  This garden is made using bricks or block, back filled and a small wire cage placed in the center to act as a compost pile (too small and dry to do much composting).  This design could be incorporated into a patio landscape and would be great for herbs.

As we were leaving, the work crew of 5 and 6 year olds showed up to plant some of the unplanted raised beds.  All of the produce from this garden is donated to needy families in the town of Rifle, Co.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Vegetable garden bloggers' bloom day

Garden bloggers all know (or should) about the monthly event, hosted at May Dreams Gardens, known as Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day. I usually join in from my Rogue Eggplant blog to show off my flowers, but why shouldn't the vegetable garden get to join in? Here's some of what's blooming today in the Derwood Demo Garden's veggie beds.

First of all, ta-da! Our cardoons are flowering.

Cardoons are some of my favorite flowers ever, enormous bright blue-purple thistle-like explosions, usually with bee accompaniment. The first two have popped out and we have a lot more buds waiting. You should be able to catch the show at our Grow It Eat It Open House on July 26. (More info here.)

Other veggie plants in bloom:

Runner bean 'Hestia'
A tangle of flowering radishes in the straw bales
Cucumbers - very prolific!
Flower on the end of a tromboncino squash
Vegetable flowers are fabulous - and quite a few of them are edible! I'm really wishing I'd taken that squash flower home so I could stuff it and fry it up…

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Basil downy mildew

Does your basil look like this? Then I'm sorry to say your plants are likely to have downy mildew, a fungal disease that's fatal to our favorite pesto ingredient. I found it on some of the Italian basil plants in my community garden plot yesterday, and had to pull them out. (Luckily I was able to bring them home, and throw the leaves into the food processor with pine nuts, garlic, olive oil and a touch of lemon juice. Humans - and pasta - are not affected by downy mildew.)

I'm hoping that prompt removal will mean the disease doesn't spread to my other basil plants, which are in a sunnier and airier location. Plant crowding is a big factor in susceptibility to downy mildew (along with wet weather), and my affected plants were a bit close to my peppers and my neighbor's encroaching tomatoes. We had downy mildew on basil in the demo garden a couple of years ago, and I noted the same crowding issue then. Also, it seemed that other types of basil - lemon, Thai, purple types - were less susceptible than Italian. Of course that's the kind I want most of!

See this UMD Extension page for more information and photos. Along with the yellowing of the leaf tops, you'll see a fuzzy gray coating on the leaf bottoms of infected plants. It's sad to have to take the plants out, but there's time to grow lots more basil before the season ends.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Saying Farewell to An Old Friend

So the time has come to say goodbye to my strawberry patch of four years. Ahhh we had some good times together. It pained me to pull it up, but it wasn't producing as much as it has in the past. Come and take a little stroll down memory lane with me....

My amazing strawberry patch began with just a few plants. I honestly didn't think the patch would last as long as it did...especially since I never mulched it in the winter months.

Here it is in its first year. I planted onions in between the plants because I read that they grew well together:

Here are the first berries I ever picked from the patch. I remember how excited I was when I saw them. I squealed like a kid on Christmas morning! They were so soft, juicy and SO sweet! I've never bought strawberries from the store since! Store-bought just doesn't taste the same! One of my berries was even shaped like a heart:

Soon, more berries followed:

And followed.....

At the end of the first year, the berries put out runners. By the second year the patch looked like this:

Then my harvest started to look like this every few days:

I even enjoyed some with crepes I made for breakfast:

This year, the patch looked like this:

I tried thinning out the patch in the third year, but those amazing berries just filled the spaces right back in. But even with all that green, I didn't get very many strawberries. Only maybe one small bowl. In the previous years I got at least one large bowl full every few days. I knew it was time to say goodbye and make room for new plants. Now...brace is the empty space. 

You can see the pile of strawberry plants laying there. My daughter refused to watch me pull the patch out. My hubby made me promise that I will have  more strawberries again next year. Which I will, but  most likely in pots...I need the garden space.

And so....we bid farewell to the Fat Earth Backyard Farm amazing strawberry patch. :-(  But, as the good Lord says in His Word:

*in my Forrest Gump voice* That's all I have to say about that. 

Until next time....

Happy gardening!

Monday, July 7, 2014

Purple Podded Peas on Plates

Purple podded pea vines and blooms
It’s been a while since I managed to download photos, especially food photos since I have to remind myself to take them in the first place. Unfortunately, once I cook, I’m so focused on actually EATING, that I never think to record things until we’re stuffing the empty plates into the sink. But I did manage to photo one plate of purple-podded shell peas from start to finish sometime in June.

Purple (and stubborn green) pods and garlic scopes
The rabbits had decimated my early-seeded veggies including the snow peas that I poked into the ground in about mid-April. I don’t mind tithing to the critters but I go ballistic when they only leave me a tenth or less! So before I put the purple-podded pea plants that I had started in the greenhouse into the ground, I set up camouflage in the form of row cover pinned to the trellis. It worked; the rabbits by-passed them, and I ended up with beautiful vining peas covered in purple pods (also a fair number of green pods that apparently didn’t get the purple memo). At any rate, they were glorious, and I had several meals of peas done a couple of different ways.  

When they finally gave out, we clipped the vines at the ground and laid them behind the cabbages and purple kohlrabi that I had bought at Kingstown Farm Home and Garden. The kohlrabi had been marked ‘red cabbage,’ which appeared to be truth in advertising when it had only a couple of leaves on it. But instead of red cabbage it turned into beautiful purple globes that I turned into slaw and ate with fish tacos. (So much for warm red cabbage salad with garlic, toasted walnuts and feta, but the slaw was lovely).

But I digress.

Pods opened (burry pic --sorry) but how pretty!
The peas, as I’m sure you suspect, are finished. We’re now picking haricots verts, herbs, the first Sungold cherry tomatoes (today!), serranos and lemon peppers, but I’m still thinking ‘PEAS’ because it’s now time to put in a second planting of them. And bless my husband’s soul, he’s prepped a bed that I can stick them into in hopes of having more this fall.

 This year was the first that I tried the purple podded variety, and would do it again happily, though I’d make the trellis higher next time. Instead of 4.5 feet, they got to be about seven feet tall and drooped over the too-short support I had put up. Their flavor (always a critical point with me) is really good-sweet, not mealy or starchy if you get them before they swell the pods too much. They’re prolific, and because most of the pods are actually a burgundy-purple, they’re much easier to find and pick than the green pods we usually have. 

Sauteed peas with shallots and prosciutto
I shelled them while watching the news and stir-fried them in olive oil with a chopped shallot and a couple of slices of prosciutto. Delicious. To make them go a little farther the second time around, I added them to al dente whole grain pasta then mixed in some grated Asiago cheese and just a splash of cream. We ate it with a glass of wine. I love eating at this time of year! (Who'm I kidding? I love to eat!)

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Lettuce soup

At this time of summer, most of us have already pulled out our spring lettuce, or are looking at plants that are bolting and tasting bitter. If you've still got some lettuce that's salad-worthy, use it now! But if it's on its way to flowering, you may still be able to eat it - if you're willing to try lettuce soup.

I tried it myself, a few weeks ago when I was facing way too much lettuce. It's easy to overplant in early April, when the world is cold and you just want to see some green in the garden. And most of the lettuces I grow are looseleaf cut-and-come-again types, so even if I hold back and plant a bit at a time, I still sometimes end up with ridiculous amounts in May and June, and start getting tired of huge salads.

Just a little of the lettuce I grew this year
So, I harvested a large bunch and put it into soup.

I'm not going to give you a recipe here, because there are many of them on the web that you can search for yourself. There are lettuce soups made with cream, with potatoes, pureed and not. I chose to make mine with white beans, and the reason it's red is that I added the water I cooked beets in. The idea was that I'd use all red lettuces, add some beet-redness, and blend it into a nice pink puree, thus avoiding the Olive Green Soup Phenomenon that has afflicted so many of my improvised potages. However, it turns out that when you cook red lettuce it goes green, so I was left with a red-green-white effect and decided not to blend it together after all.

Lettuce soup is not exciting, but it's just as edible as soup made with other greens, and you can spice it up as much as you want. And it's a good way to avoid wasting food - use up that excess of lettuce, or lettuce that's getting too bitter to eat fresh (just be prepared to balance the bitterness with a little sweet and sour in the ingredients: caramelized onions or carrots, lemon juice, sorrel, etc. etc.).

It should also be possible to wilt lettuce by steaming it or cooking it briefly in oil or butter, and then freeze it for later soup use, but I haven't tried this yet.

If your lettuce has already bolted all the way to flower, it's probably too late to soupify it, so either pull it out to make way for other plants, or let it bloom (it's kind of pretty!) and save seeds from it for fall planting.